It is a fine time to be a Culé, isn’t it! Winners of Champions League Group D with a game to spare, leaders of the Spanish league after the five-goal demolition of a Real Madrid team left in tatters at our flowing brilliance, and now soon-to-be recipients of this year’s Ballon D’or (the only question being will it go to Xavi, Iniesta, or Messi?). And, just to top things off, fresh from an emphatic away win over previously undefeated-at-home Osasuna. The biggest complaint from all of this? We didn’t get our frequent flyer miles for the trip to Pamplona. Yes, the last two weeks have turned out quite nicely, haven’t they.
This brings us to the final midweek European matchup until after the Christmas break: the last group stage game of this season’s Champions League, at home to Rubin Kazan. While the main objective for the Blaugrana should be to let the boys from the B team have a good run about in front of Pep, the Russians are fighting for a spot in the knockout stage. Kazan need a win in the Camp Nou and a FC Copenhagen loss or tie to Panathinaikos if they hope to finish second in the group; neither of these scenarios seems likely.
With all of this in mind, Barcelona coach Guardiola has made a number of not-unexpected changes to the side set to face the Russians this Tuesday evening. David Villa, Xavi, Dani Alves, Pedro, and Keita have all been given a rest against Kazan, while Marc Bartra, Andreu Fontás, Thiago Alcántara, Jonathon Dos Santos, and Víctor Vázquez have been called up from the B-team. Pinto, freshly returned from his UEFA-imposed two-match ban, will start in goal; the unbelievably injury-prone Milito will, sadly, take his usual place in the stands. Can’t somebody find this man a good doctor?
Expect at least one or two of the kids from La Masia to make an appearance, with many of the Culé faithful no-doubt hoping that Messi is also given the day off up top. That being said, Guardiola has indicated in his pre-match press conference that at least some semblance of a first team squad will take the field. “We are group winners again, the job is done, but out of respect, we will try to play our dynamic game, and make the maximum number of chances.” Translation? Expect a mixed group on the field for the Catalans at the starting whistle.
This should include Bojan in a starting spot up top. He’s too good to be coming off of the bench for the last five minutes of games, and with the imminent arrival of Ibrahim Afellay from PSV Eindhoven in January, he needs games to prove himself, or faces falling further down the pecking order. The rest? Should be an interesting mix of first-teamers and kids. My lineup predictions have been crap so far this season, so maybe going out on a limb for the kids from La Masia isn’t the best idea. No matter.
Barcelona Predicted Lineup: Pinto, Adriano, Piqué, Fontás, Maxwell, Busquets, Mascherano, Dos Santos, Bojan, Jeffren, Vázquez.
Meanwhile, things have not gone quite so well for Rubin Kazan as of late. A draw on the weekend to Russian League leaders Zenit St. Petersburg saw them settle into third place domestically, while their progression in the Champions League is, largely, down to the outcome of the FC Copenhagen-Panathinaikos match. Sitting a point behind the Danes in Group D, even a win in the Camp Nou would be meaningless for the Russian side if Copenhagen manage to collect three points at home against the Greeks.
None of this means that the Russians should be counted out: they are unbeaten in their last sixteen games, have no major injury worries, and have managed two draws and a win against Barcelona in the last three meetings between the two sides. And, it should be added, that win came at the Camp Nou. Could they qualify for the next round? The Champions League is a fickle mistress. Don’t count Kazan out just yet.
Rubin Kazan Predicted Lineup: Ryzhikov, César, Bocchetti, Salukvadze, Kaleshin, Noboa, Murawski, Kornilenko, Martins, Ryazantsev, Gökdeniz
Match Prediction: With nothing but pride to play for, a young Barcelona side will be coming up against a full-strength Rubin Kazan determined to claim victory in the hopes of reaching the next round of the Champions League. Encounters between these two teams have been decidedly physical in the past, so expect some young tempers to flare for the Catalans, and some Russian elbows to be thrown this way and that. The Russians have found success against Barcelona by launching counter attacks down the wings, but with everything to play for on Tuesday evening, expect a more direct attacking game from Kazan. 2-1 to the Russians.